Paula Modersohn-Becker: The German artist who was the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait

Google celebrates the life of the groundbreaking Expressionist artist

Emily Shugerman
New York
Thursday 08 February 2018 17:33
comments
Google Doode: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 142nd Birthday

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the life and work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, a renown German painter and the first Western woman to paint herself in the nude.

Ms Modersohn-Becker was born in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Germany in 1876, and began drawing at a young age. She briefly attended St John’s Wood School of Art in England, but eventually returned to Germany to train as a teacher, at her parents’ behest.

Her teaching career did not last long. At the ripe age of 18, Ms Modersohn-Becker used her inheritance to move to a German artist’s colony known as the Worpswede school. It was there that she met and befriended sculptor Clara Westhoff, with whom she made her first trip to Paris.

It was also there that she met Otto Modersohn, a fellow painter who would soon become her husband. Ms Modersohn-Becker wrote to the older artist from that first trip to Paris, begging him to join her there and leave his wife. Four months later, they were married.

The artist did not adapt well to married life, and wrote frequently in her journal about her frustrations. Her parents sent her to cooking school to try to domesticate her, and her husband complained bitterly in his diary about her lack of cooking and cleaning skills.

Ms Modersohn-Becker, however, remained focused on her art. In a letter to her mother written approximately two years after her wedding, she wrote: “I am going to become somebody.”

And become someone she did – though not in her own lifetime. Ms Modersohn-Becker is now revered as one of the early Expressionists; a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Though she sold only three paintings in her life, her work has since been displayed in top museums in New York and Paris, and across Germany.

Ms Modersohn-Becker was also extremely prolific, producing more than 700 paintings in her short lifetime. Many of her paintings depicted women, and often women in the nude – a groundbreaking decision for a woman of her time. Her most productive year came in 1906, when she left her husband and moved to Paris alone. She painted more than 80 paintings that year.

Her husband eventually joined her in Paris, and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. She would never live to know her child, or to see her paintings become celebrated: She died 18 days after giving birth, at the age of 31.

As she died, according to her biographer, she said simply: “What a pity.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments